Boy meets girl. Girl falls for boy. Boy discovers he’s got a hazardous superpower and is called away to save the world from a burgeoning evil. This isn’t the usual formula for a romantic comedy, nor is it typical for Indian cinema, which roots itself in ancient mysticism and mythology. Yet that’s what makes writer-director Ayan Mukerji’s sprawling epic “Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva” special and innovative. He smashes up genre conventions as Western cinematic influences readily comingle with pure Bollywood razzle-dazzle. And though the story is occasionally overcomplicated and the spectacle excites and exhausts in equal measure (as even Marvel movies do), it’s a wildly entertaining jump start to a planned trilogy – touted as Bollywood’s first original cinematic universe, the “Astraverse.”
The journey begins with the legend of the Astras, or “weapons of the Light.” They derive from elements in the natural world (Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, as well as animal and plant essences). These armaments are disguised as everyday objects that grant those who wield them — sages dubbed Brahmānsh — supercharged, energy-radiating powers. This ancient order, who worship the deity Brahm, Lord of the Astras, has been around for centuries in India, working to protect the Light from any Dark forces that may arise. However, contemporary generations have forgotten their existence, allowing modern Brahmānsh to maintain their secret identities while holding power positions in society.
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The most powerful weapon of the Gods, the Brahmāstra, has been dormant for three decades. The last time it was awakened, it caused chaos across the globe. To protect the world, the Brahmānsh split it into three pieces, scattered around India, guarded by key leaders. On the same night that poor, humble DJ Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) meets the love of his life, quick-witted beauty Isha (Alia Bhatt), he begins to be plagued by mysterious, debilitating visions that impede his budding romance. A dark force, led by Junoon (Mouni Roy) is seeking to unite the fractured pieces and achieve world domination and mass destruction. As these visions grow more intense, our budding hero must answer the call, embarking on an adventure with Isha to uncover his destiny.
Setting the story during Diwali, India’s Festival of Lights, is an inspired choice as it grounds the special effects-driven hijinks in reality, while adding culture and tradition into the mix. Blessedly, the mysteries of both Shiva’s origins and the elusive villain aiding Junoon’s evil quest are well sustained during a generous amount of the movie’s run time. Some of the machinations are certainly predictable, especially for Westerners experiencing superhero fatigue over films that feature the pieces of some MacGuffin or other being assembled while the hero attempts to fulfill their fate. The movie also experiences spotty pacing issues, most noticeably when it returns from intermission, overdosing on exposition at times, seeing as how the characters twice summarize what’s happened. Yet in Mukerji’s capable, crafty hands, it’s never a dull ride. There are few wasted moments, as all the details lay the groundwork for this chapter as well as the two upcoming sequels, presumed to have further payoff.
Character development doesn’t follow the traditional hero’s journey arc. Rather, the film uses that model as the departure point for a unique twist on the expected, innovating and updating it. It’s an enlightened way to include Isha’s agency and arc, which runs complementary to Shiva’s. The pair are archetypal heroes who are fundamentally good, kind souls with heartwarming values that reflect narrative themes of sacrifice, truth and love. These character qualities are always at the forefront of the action, even before the supernatural elements occur. Orchestrating this subtly is a feat given the film’s bombastic, over-the-top nature.
Leads Kapoor and Bhatt have an excess of charm and style that leaps off the screen and grabs your heart. Kapoor’s charisma elevates the material’s sporadically hokey dialogue. Bhatt is luminescent, playing both spitfire and sweetheart with gusto and grace. They are at their most endearing when vulnerable. During a few sequences, whether they’re running over rooftops during fireworks or being sprinkled with marigold petals in a musical number, we can practically spot the dynamic duo falling head over heels for real — since we in the audience are rooting for the real-life newlywed couple.
Casting titans of Indian Cinema as the Brahmāstra pieces’ guardians (towering talents like Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna Akkineni and a gigantic Bollywood superstar who’d be a spoiler to reveal) is a shrewd move, as it gives the ensuing action added gravitas, while gifting the audience with gleeful grins. Sequences that thrive on special effects, showing these men locked in a battle of muscular wit and grit, deliver on the promise of blockbuster fun. Stunt choreography on the whole is lively, naturally including superhero landings for a few folks, but could stand to be infused with more originality.
With a soundtrack including a range of ballads and bops, and score from Pritam Chakraborty that would be celebrated at any nightclub, the film’s soundscape feels emotionally expansive and immersive. Mukerji’s vision for character-driven action is appealing on a multitude of levels, as are the scale and scope of the Astraverse’s future, which crystalizes by the film’s end.
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